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narrative therapy

Counselling the gifted student using Narrative Therapy

Published: September 18 2021

Written by: Anne Jackson

The vast majority of students comprehend the education system and efficiently learn what is taught, in the manner it is taught. The student, who is able to conform, gains much from the school system; society is geared to accept the exiting student as a worthwhile member. Their behaviour, characteristics and success have become the expected norm for educated people.

Never-the-less there are a percentage of students who fall outside the norm. Many well-intentioned school staff still view such a student as the one who must change, adapt or leave. The result can become that difference is viewed as pathology and deemed to require treatment and modification by specialised experts (Baker 2018, Anwyk 2008). The powerful members within any environment use language (Bruner 1990, Lambie & Milsom 2010) to require change in the lesser members. In this life view a person is deemed to have become the pathological label applied by a professional; “He’s schizophrenic” He’s a psychopath”. The individual becomes a stereotypical explanation of the behaviour rather than an individual with a current mental health problem. This perception in turn restricts and reduces the individual’s chances of change or control in their life. He comes to view himself as flawed. This interpretation becomes the dominant narrative of the person’s life, “I’m depressed”, “I’m gifted”, “I’m dyslexic”, “I’m naughty”. The person is seen and sees himself as the problem as opposed to a concept created by people and social institutions around them (Lambie & Milsom 2010, Gibson & Kendall 2010). Instead, if the therapist or support person in conversation deconstructs this narrative, this ‘thin story’ of self, and builds an alternative story which views the difference as a positive strength, dramatic changes can occur. For example, by curiously wondering as part of the conversation (Lambie & Milsom 2010), “Is there ever a time when Dyslexia has helped you do a task?”. The dyslexia can become a superpower which generates and supports enhanced skills and abilities that are usable in the right circumstances as opposed to making an individual who fails because she can’t read or write well (Eide & Eide 2011, Gilmore &Boulton-Lewis 2009, Von Károlyi & Winner 2004).

Narrative Therapy is a relatively new form of counselling, yet one that reaches back into human history. It is dependent upon story telling. Oral stories are one of the methods humans have always used in order to come to terms with life and all its complexities. Using the same oral practises, in the 1990s Michael White and David Epston (Anwyk 2008, Morgan 2000) absorbed the modifications occurring in family therapy to increase the role of personal values and skills into the process of counselling. The resulting focus upon the hearing of the person’s own future story and the insistence that ‘the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem,’ has created a therapy that reverberates well with twice-exceptional and gifted students.

The therapy which can be formal or informal, is dependent upon a person being open and willing to actively listen to anything the young person shares and to recognise that the individual is the expert in their own lives (Volker 1999). Nobody else knows the person as well as they know themselves. Their personal values, ideas and ethics may be underdeveloped and difficult to explain but never-the-less elaboration and thickening of their beliefs is happening within all people. Any story is observed by a therapist using the narrative technique as a series of events, which are linked in sequence across time, according to a plot or manner of making sense of the events. The meaning attributed to the experiences influences the personal narrative. Humans constantly tell stories about themselves. For example, the student who refrains from hitting another or breaking something, will consider themselves as a “good person” as they gain positive responses and approval from others. This story becomes real and thicker as evidence is added by positive experiences and responses from significant others. Contrast the student with limited emotional control who is chastised, criticised or blamed by others who creates a different narrative. Their story is thickened too but the internal narrative is “I can’t control myself”, “I’m bad”, “People don’t like me”. The dominant narrative of the self for this student becomes one of worthlessness and resulting low self-esteem (Ronksley-Pavia & Townend 2017). This becomes the believed reality for that student; I am the problem. Subsequently, incidents that reinforce the story will be privileged over others that may be in contrast, as experiences become selected to endorse the student’s self-view.

Figure 1

The line in Figure 1 represents the dominant story with each X being an event that has occurred in the period being referenced. In order to have a narrative of “I’m bad” the student has to exclude the occasions that challenge that dominant belief. Narrative therapy turns the focus upon the alternate Xs and highlights the challenges to the story that have occurred. It seeks to find evidence for alternative glimmers of brightness which can be developed. Unless the assumptions are re-storied the dominant story will continue to influence behaviours, beliefs and reactions. The problem will become the person.

Gifted students in Australia may come to counselling as their differences mean they are falling outside the norm required by teachers. The young person is becoming a problem that needs fixing in order to conform to the school system. Giftedness in Australia is usually recognised via psychological intelligence testing or sometimes by outstanding performances, for example in music or sport. Through-out recent Australian history, young people with gifts in sport have been recognised, nurtured, placed in focused training programs and are cossetted from an early age. Being gifted in sport is acceptable in Australia. However, many other gifted young people are invisible as their gifts may not show up in academic tasks or be valued by society in someone so young. Students notice that they struggle with a standardised curriculum and schooling system which often fails to nurture their gifts and come to believe they are faulty. The Australian education system uses a model of giftedness which, in theory, responds to young people in the top 10% of any ranking of intellectual, creative, social or physical ability (Merrotsy 2017, Henderson 2018, Matters 2007, Kronborg 2018). Talent is subsequently considered to be the skill to achieve at a level in the top 10% in any area of human performance. It is assumed that talent emerges from innate giftedness via a complex progression of external opportunities, internal characteristics, chance and teaching (Gagné 2003, 2012). Currently this model has not developed into an identification policy despite many federal governments reviews suggesting that this be done (Australian government 2014, Commonwealth of Australia 2001, Education and Training Committee 2012, Gonski 2018, Southwick 2013). This lack of policy across Australia leaves many young people unable to access the supports they need. It is understood that many gifted students require an alternative path through the regular curriculum (Reis & Renzulli 2010, 1988) in order to develop their gifts and talents. Their personal struggle in the classroom becomes one where they cease to notice any other gifted peers, instead viewing themselves as failing in an environment others appear to manage easily. The student perceives their boredom, frustration or incomprehension of tasks and requirements to be something that is wrong with them. Others in the class seem content and managing the requirements, so it must be me that is wrong. Within a twice-exceptional student, who carries gifts and disability, this can become even more pronounced as they achieve in some areas and fail miserably in others (Olenchak 2009). The result often in them becoming very adept at only reporting the negative narrative (Ronksley-Pavia 2016).

Narrative Therapy using externalising of the problem and emotions by creating a persona for the problem or making the problem a noun is a fundamental tool for such a student. The student who introduces themselves as: “I’m Aimy, I’m dyslexic” has a very firm self-narrative which is likely to influence every interaction with schoolwork and teachers. Dyslexia is an ability that allows students to flourish when positively incorporated into academic subjects that are modified to access their strengths of pattern making, storytelling, visual spatial intelligence and empathy. Retelling the narrative as: “I am Aimy and I live with dyslexia” provides scope to influence the problem with the strengths of the student.

This type of conversation can occur whenever one individual has the knowledge of the externalising used regularly in narrative therapy conversations. Bringing the problem to the outside as a drawing or description of an entity enables a student to converse with the problem. The intense emotions can be examined and contained when they become personified. (Fraser 2003). In younger children this is particularly helpful as they readily accept the idea of talking with a stuffed toy or puppet. Older children prefer an image or likeness of an alien, monster, devil or even a character from fiction; Death Eaters, Cybermen, Loki or The Joker. The therapist is not to create a version of the problem, instead they should playfully wonder how the problem looks, feels and behaves. The problem is then interviewed to discover the influence it has on the young person (Lambie & Milsom 2010).

“How has Dyslexia effected your relationship with your friends?”
“Is there ever a time when Dyslexia has helped you do a task?”

Using Narrative Therapy to externalise the problem creates a means of dealing with the effects upon the young person. The consequence of the problem is then studied and managed in a way that makes the young person the supervisor of the problem. Gently and carefully advocacy skills are taught, self-efficacy is boosted, ownership is accentuated and self-esteem is raised. Only then, is the child ready to begin the process of managing the education system and releasing the belief that being different always equates to being a failure.


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